Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Woman in the Window

By A.J. Finn (pseud. for Daniel Mallory)
Wm. Morrow     2018
448 pages           Psychological Thriller

Anna is agoraphobic. She has been a self-made captive in her own home for 10 months when we meet her. It appears that she suffered greatly when her husband Ed and daughter Olivia left her, and the agoraphobia is a result of that loss. The only people she sees are her therapist and her physical therapist. But it wasn’t always that way. She was Dr. Anna Fox, a well respected child psychologist, a partner in a therapy practice. She knows what is wrong with her, but she is helpless to treat herself. She self-medicates with drugs and alcohol. She spends all day in her bathrobe playing computer chess, offering online advice to other agoraphobic people, and watching Hitchcock and other noir movies from the 1940s.

Anna has a secret vice. She spies on her neighbors through her high-powered camera lens and photographs their activities in the wealthy enclave in Harlem where they live. Most of the neighbors have been around for a while, but Anna is particularly interested in the new neighbors, the Russell’s, who have moved into the big house across the small park from her. Does this sound like Rear Window? Of course it does.

In keeping with Rear Window, while watching the neighbors, she sees what she thinks is a murder in the Russell’s living room. When no body can be found by the police, Anna comes under scrutiny by the NYPD, outed as a crazy kook, and accused of mixing up reality with the movies she is watching. She attempts to solve the mystery through her alcohol-fuzzy brain, but she soon realizes that she may have to leave the security of her home to prove what she saw is true. Even her front steps prove to be daunting. Adding to her anxiety, someone seems to be entering her house at night. Is it her basement apartment renter?

The Woman in the Window is one of those books you just can’t put down. We are getting the story only from Anna’s perspective, and our sympathy is totally with her. We know her foibles and her failings, but we think that we know the reason why. All of a sudden, in the middle of the book, there is an enormous revelation that totally changes the story and our understanding of Anna’s agoraphobia. 

WHAT! I nearly jumped out of my chair; my breathing became shallow; I had to look away from my Kindle. I glanced out the window. There on a low branch amidst the falling snow sat a bright red cardinal looking right at me. Did he see my anxiety? I focused on that beautiful cardinal until I gained control of my soul and I could proceed with the novel. Thank goodness for that cardinal.

There are many things I loved about The Woman in the Window. First, while it is an unreliable narrator novel, which seems to be extremely popular these days—as I have noted in other reviews—The Woman in the Window is consistent throughout. The questions just keep coming until the terrifying ending, and we feel enormous sympathy for Anna throughout. Then, I loved that I couldn’t put it down (except for the brief bright red cardinal moment). There are many quirky characters, and Anna has her own moments when she has insight into her own ludicrous, and sometimes quite humorous situation. There are scenes of great empathy: witness the kind NYPD detective who seems to understand her, the therapists that treat her with such kindness, and the teenage musician from across the street who helps her find her way home. Finally, I loved the connections to the Alfred Hitchcock movies, which cause confusion in Anna’s mind as well as in the mind of the reader.

One interesting sidelight. The Woman in the Window is written by Daniel Mallory under the pseudonym A.J. Finn. Mallory is a book editor for Morrow, the book’s publisher. He has put everything he has learned as an editor into his novel and it shows. The intensity never wavers. The book has been optioned for a movie.

I loved the review in the Chicago Tribune. The reviewer makes a joke about how many books about unreliable narrators  he has read, but says of this thriller: “Like all high-concept thrillers, ‘The Woman in the Window’ can afford nary a misstep, or risk falling apart like a tower of playing cards. To the author's credit, the plot is very nearly airtight. And for all the narrative effects, Finn never loses touch with the fear and insecurity of a woman who has suffered a great loss and feels abandoned and alone in the world.

The Woman in the Window came out last week. Put it on you TBR list for a snowy day. Maybe a beautiful cardinal will come your way to soothe your “can’t put it down” anxiety. Oh, be sure to have a nice warm blanket and a fire in the fireplace.

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